Growing up with a father who relished baking gave pastry chef Jansen Chan the foundation needed for what would eventually become his own lifelong passion. “I never really thought baking was the thing for me,” he explains. “I always just enjoyed it because it was something we did at home, and it was relaxing and fun.”
An innate interest in design led Chan to pursue an architecture degree at UC Berkeley, but he never strayed too far from those formative years with his father. “I was the one who would always bake in my dorm room,” he notes.
Two years into his first post-college job as a junior architect, Chan realized he missed the hands-on and results-oriented work he was practicing in school and decided to try his luck in the food industry. He applied to three restaurants via his local paper. Only one responded. “He thought I was crazy,” Chan says. “I had an architecture degree from UC Berkeley, had zero kitchen experience, and I wanted this very elementary pastry cook job. But he hired me, and one month in, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
From there, Chan stepped into a series of reputable pastry roles in the kitchens of Kuleto’s, John Frank, Essex House, and Oceana before joining the team at the International Culinary Center (462 Broadway, 888-324-2433) in 2012 as the Director of Pastry Arts. Here, we chat with Chan about why there’s no room for regrets, why he keeps his eyes and ears open (always), and the one piece of advice he leaves his graduating students.
How does your architecture degree play into your role as a pastry chef?
Pastry chefs are kind of like architects. Nothing can be done at once — everything is done in planned stages. We have an idea — a wedding cake, for example. You have to have an idea of the amount and design. You have to bake the cake, cool it, assemble it, let it chill, decorate it. It requires a lot of planning. An architect designs something but also has to design the time maps process that is required to achieve the final product.
Did you ever second-guess yourself after leaving architecture behind?
No — I never looked back. The thing about food, in general, is that there’s so much more you can always learn. I still feel like architecture school was part of my training to become a pastry chef — I still utilize all of the skills. The drawing alone helps me so much — I can draw an idea well to help explain my vision to others. So, I’m using my pastry knowledge on the science of food, but I’m also using the methodology of architecture to break down a project and bring it together in a realistic timeline. It sounds very meticulous and so perfect, and it doesn’t always work that way; things change. But I can play a little bit with it since it’s food and it’s flexible. With a skyscraper, if you’re a foot short on every steel beam, you’re screwed.
What has been your favorite thing about being on the education side of things?
I have the opportunity to meet so many pastry chefs in the city because so many of them come through the building, whether they’re on the advising committee or teaching here. When you’re in the trenches at a restaurant, you get glimpses of other people — when you’re doing an event, or maybe at your restaurant — but I don’t feel like you ever get the chance to see the bigger picture of the pastry community. It’s great to start looking at different ways of interpretation. Like, cheesecake — I’ve been doing cheesecake for so long in my own style, but to see other people do cheesecake, it’s like, “Wow. I never would’ve thought of that.”
What have you learned from your time at ICC?
One of the interesting things about pastry — which applies to the food industry as a whole, but particularly pastry — is that there are a lot of specific subjects that a chef is supposed to know, but few of us are good at every one of those equally. The ICC asks all of its chef instructors to be proficient in all fields of pastry, even though we all have varied backgrounds, and for me, that required that I improve my fondant work and sugar cake flowers. It’s great to have such a dynamic team that has different strengths –we’re able to teach each other and help each other become better as a whole.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I really believe in creating a dynamic dessert — and dynamic doesn’t necessarily mean super complicated. I think you can look at the most classic desserts and find a dynamic element to it, whether it be a very sharp contrast or complementary flavors. My own style has always been clean and simple offerings with a bit of surprise — an element or flavor you didn’t expect. There’s this philosophy I used to use when creating desserts called “palate fatigue.” I always believed that you should hit pockets in a dessert where it changes, whether the flavor is more intense, or it’s colder or hotter. I always felt like a great dessert would prevent palate fatigue, and that the game would always change.
What inspires you?
I find inspiration in everything. It’s about being an observant person in life. It can be a simple pattern I see on the street, and I might say, “Oh wow — that would be really great on a cake.” Or it could be going out to eat and paying attention to a flavor combination I’ve had — even on the savory side. It’s about paying attention to the small details, then translating those into my food.
What parting advice do you offer to your graduating students?
I tell everyone to be like a sponge — that there’s more than one way to do everything. If you go to your first job and you’re told to make something one way, the answer isn’t, “No, I want to make it like this, instead.” The answer is, “Yes, chef. Tell me how to do it.” Because the thing is, you’re going to learn different things along your culinary path, and they’re just going to increase your knowledge and your palate. When you become a chef or owner, you will decide which method or recipe you like the most. It’s the experience of working for other people and working at other places that will make you a richer, better cook at the end of the day.